Facebook and Democracy: What Are the Effects on Democracy in Using Facebook As a Public Sphere of Debate?

Andreea Madalina Belu

Student thesis: Master thesis


The already-contested Habermasian ideal of ‘public sphere’ loses its value more and more in the face of social web platforms. Facebook allows for political, social and commercial content, turning the online space into a public sphere of deliberation within a social and advertising context. Jurgen Habermas did not considered social power as a potential negative influence in the conducting of an ideal public sphere of democratic debate. Rendered by many as liberating sphere for democracy. (Street, 2001; Curran, 2000; Keane, 2000), online platforms are also seen as dangerous for democracy due to the rise of e-commerce (Curran, 2000) and identity privacy issues (Sheedy, 2011). Considering Facebook an ideal space for deliberation has multivalent and complex effects on democracy that require further research.
In order to investigate these effects, this paper developed an extended and mediated normative ideal of democratic agency in the public sphere. The basis of this ideal is a critical perspective of communicative power laid down by two different authors: Jeffrey Flynn(2004) with his wide reading of the concept as opposed to Jurgen Habermas’ s narrow one and Amy Allen(2002) with her proposal to render Hannah Arendt’s communicative power as complementary to Michel Foucault’s strategic one. Within the developed ideal, communicative power would not only be a tool of law legitimation (Habermas, 1984), but also a weapon against social power (Flynn, 2004). As a prerequisite, a genealogical analysis of strategic power relations is needed. (Allen, 2002) The case of Facebook is carried against the criteria imposed by this ideal.
The paper first looked at the strategic exercise of power relations that enabled the use of Facebook as a public sphere. The inquiry focused around whether consent was given before entering a power relation and whether such relations had a positive or negative affect on the users’ identity making. The paper argues that way strategic uses of power happened in the past also influences the nature of existing power relations, therefore the first question’s answer helps in elucidating the second question too. Within the second new pseudo - public sphere was characterised in regards to rationality, neutrality, pluralism and consensus. Once the findings of the two research questions were summed up, the resulting debate was looked at. Based on theoretical grounds, the thesis found that Facebook introduced itself as a pseudo public sphere by disregarding users’ consent to enter social power relation. Caging their identity-formation process enabled performative identities in online and offline settings alike. In present, consent is acknowledged, but avoided with perfected techniques. Performative identities have led to the rise of clicktivism(White, 2010). Second question showed the new public sphere as characterized by orchestrated consensus, avoidance of criticism, virality as the quality criteria encouraged and pluralism as a resource for the reorganization of users into new audiences. Deliberative democracy based on the premises of the two research questions becomes an opportunity for those who pay with their money or identity. In return, they learn how to gain and exercise social power in their own interest. Debate either works as a tranquilizer for democratic action, either as an enabler for irrational extremist one.
The thesis further took a normative stance and used the developed ideal of democratic agency to suggest an alternative. Due to the use of communicative power as a weapon against social power, the platform suggestested would have to be at the opposite end of Facebook’s business model. In this respect, the separation of political, social and economical contexts is the primary condition for the development of an online space that could live up to the extended and moderated normative ideal of a public sphere of democratic debate. Moreover, other highlights of the proposed model include the elimination of aggregating algorithms based on past interaction, a privacy - by - design approach to data and procedural/normative transparency.

EducationsMSc in Philosophy, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2016
Number of pages93